Translating India, one book at a time!

India publishes in 24 languages, including English and Rajasthani, and in over 18 dialects. It is the second-largest English language print book publisher in the world.Once you understand the sheer numbers that India represents, you realise that there are long-term opportunities in publishing and translation in India – both for print and digital.


Translating India

While earlier translations were limited to more high-brow, literary works, meant for a discerning reader, recently we have seen an increase in the number of English language translations of all manner of books, including popular fiction and non-fiction, self-help books, pulp fiction, poetry and more. According to well-known translator Arunava Sinha, “[The literary translation industry] has been through an upswing and is now trending low. Over the past 3-4 years, there has been a gradual decline in the publication of serious fiction translation. Most publishers are increasingly publishing only for the popular market, which gives serious fiction translations competition.”

Translations into English have always been an important part of an Indian publisher’s list. Minakshi Thakur, who heads the languages initiative at Westland Books, puts it in perspective, “In a country which has 21 official languages and 1600 dialects, not working with translations seems impossible. In fact, it surprises me that more translations are not happening within our languages. English translations are important because we need to take the best Indian voices to urban Indian readership, to introduce them to the bravest and most un-self-conscious writers in the languages. Also, we must make our literature travel abroad just as European and non-English language publishers do internationally. I am sure we have a Marquez, a Murakami, a Ferrante, a Bernhard Shlink sitting here in many parts of India.”

Neeta Gupta is the publisher at Yatra Books and a literary consultant with a special emphasis on translations. She is also the editor of Bharatiya Anuvad Parishad’s quarterly journal on translation, Anuvad. Yatra Books and Bharatiya Anuvad Parishad share strategic strengths and draw synergy and creativity from their complementary activities. She has been working towards creating publishing connectivities across different languages and cultures, a mission she also carries forward as the Festival co-Director of Jaipur BookMark.

In terms of language, the first wave of translations from Indian languages to English was dominated by Bangla, probably because many of the editors at leading publishing houses were familiar with Bengali texts. We now have an equal number of works in Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada and other Indian languages, making their mark through translation. In fact, a new initiative called the Indian Novels Collective aims to bring 100 non-English Indian novels to English readers.

Leading literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, is of the opinion that one of the issues while translating a book from a regional language to English is to find a translator who is capable of doing justice to it. Another issue is sales, which usually do not cross 2000 copies for works of translated fiction. Of course, there are exceptions like the Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar (2015) which saw phenomenal sales, as well as international rights acquisitions. But these are few and far between. At times, a translated title benefits from other factors. For instance, the English translation of Rau, a 1972 Marathi historical fiction novel by N S Inamdar,on which Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie ‘Bajirao Mastani’ was based, sold well because of the Bollywood connection.

How have things changed from the perspective of translators?

Internationally, with the Man Booker Prize recognising translations, publishers and literary agents around the world started taking notice of works written in languages other than English. The demand for translations from publishers also increased in India. A number of English language publishers like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Pan Macmillan, Westland, Bloomsbury, Aleph, Speaking Tiger, etc., introduced a translation list which was a tremendous opportunity for newer, younger translators. This has also meant better pay for translators, more recognition, building of a translation community, and a realisation of the need for soft infrastructure for translators. Translators are now celebrities in their own right and publishers vie with each other to sign up the big ticket translators—like Arunava Sinha, Arshia Sattar, Jerry Pinto and Ira Pande, amongst others.

Translations between Indian Languages

It is a mystery why more works are not shared in translation between Indian languages. While it is important to encourage this internal dialogue between, there are not that many translators who can do this, and a number of them increasingly use English as a bridge language. We realised this at the Yali Translation Workshop while discussing the translation of Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar into Indian languages. There was not even one translator who could work directly from Kannada to Bangla!

This has also affected the discoverability of Indian language books. For instance, earlier authors like Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay were almost simultaneously available in Hindi translations, now we usually wait for an English translation of an Indian language book to become successful before trade book publishers in other Indian languages begin to take an interest.

One of the reasons for this could be that translations of Indian language literary works were usually taken up by the Sahitya Akademi, and once they won an award or recognition, were simultaneously translated into other Indian languages as a matter of course.

Another very important aspect of translating into Indian languages is for translators to be given proper credit. Many publishers don’t even acknowledge the translator’s name on the title page or cover. Sometimes credit and recognition are more important for translators than mere monetary compensation. At Yatra Books, for instance, we have a published over 400 titles in English, Hindi, Marathi, Bangla, Telugu, Odia, Gujarati and Urdu, in collaboration with Penguin Books India, Dorling Kindersley, Cambridge University Press India Ltd. and since 2012, with Westland Books. We always acknowledge the translators’ name on the cover as well as title page of every book we publish.

Organisations like Sangam House, through their Yali initiative, are working towards creating an infrastructure for translations between Indian languages. Their efforts include awarding translations, providing mentorship and a space for translators to take the time out to complete their projects.

International Translations

A lot of European books are published in translation in Indian languages and this is a direct result of institutes in Europe supporting these translations with generous grants, for example, the French Book Office, the Goethe Institute and the German Book Office, Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA), Ramon Llull Institute in Barcelona for Catalan translations and Accion Culturalis, which supports Spanish translations.

At Yatra Books, for instance, our international translations would not have been possible without key collaborations with international institutions like Sciences PO in Paris, for the translation of Christophe Jaffrelot’s India Since 1950; Ramon Llull Institute, Barcelona for a Catalan translation of Merce Rodoreda’s short stories into Hindi; and TEDA (Turkish Culture Ministry) for a series of contemporary Turkish novels which were translated into Hindi. We have also collaborated with the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation in Moscow for translating a rare collection of Himalayan folktales, by the Russian traveller Ivan Minayev in 1875, from Russian to English.

In Hindi, Vani Prakashan – one of the largest publishing houses – publishes translation from international languages on a regular basis.

Our literatures would benefit tremendously if we could revive initiatives like ILA (Indian Literature Abroad) to provide support to international translators and publishers in order to facilitate the publication of Indian literatures in international languages.

Jaipur BookMark: a new initiative

One of the ways in which we are trying to bring Indian writing into the international space, and to encourage the buying and selling of translation rights of Indian language literatures, is through the Jaipur BookMark (JBM), the publishing segment of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Launched five years ago, JBM has been providing a platform for publishers, literary agents, translators and writers to meet, talk business and listen to major industry players from across the globe.

With this initiative, we hope to begin answering the question that publishers and agents from across the world often ask: How do we get to know Indian literatures? How can we translate from, into and between Indian languages? Why is it important to read India in translation, and not only Indian English writing?

Being a part of the larger literature festival, Jaipur BookMark has the unique advantage of offering the possibility of both getting to know India’s varied literatures and authors through the literary festival platform, as well as making contact with publishers at the dedicated business roundtables and panel discussions. Translation remains a special focus at Jaipur BookMark and through a series of sessions both at the Jaipur BookMark venue and at the main festival we launch an interrogation into the state of translation in South Asia.

While we have come a long way, we still need to do a lot more to support publishing translations in India, recognise and reward translators, create a more collaborative sharing of world rights for languages, provide incentives and create awareness among readers.

Understanding India

  • India is the second-most populous country in the world at 1.31 billion and almost 50% of the population is under 25 years of age.
  • With a 75% literacy rate, we have access to 712 universities, 36,671 colleges and 11,445 private institutions of higher learning.
  • India has the second-largest number of English speakers in the world.
  • Indian internet users have grown from 42 million in 2011 (Google data) to 500 million in June, 2018 (a report by IAMAI and Kantar IMRB), of which about 300 million are city dwellers and nearly 200 million users in rural areas!
  • We have a billion plus phone users and according to the data released by the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) there are 82,237 registered newspapers in India.
  • The size of the Indian book market is valued at approximately 6 billion USD (Nielsen estimates) and the average growth rate of Indian publishing industry is greater than 20% per annum.
  • India publishes in 24 languages, including English and Rajasthani, and in over 18 dialects. It is the second-largest English language print book publisher in the world.
  • While 71% of the book market is school text books and 23% is text books for higher education, 6% of the book market is comprised of trade books. 25% of trade books are published for children and young adults, 45% of the general readers opt for non-fiction, while 30% choose fiction titles.
  • Of the trade books segment, English publishing constitutes 55.6% of the market and Indian languages constitute about 44.4%.

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